The season of Lent begins, as it does every year, on Ash Wednesday. Lent is 40 days long, excluding Sundays, which are not considered fast days. It is intended to be a time of preparation for Holy Week and Easter. It is a journey toward Easter, much like the journey Jesus himself took toward Jerusalem in the days before his arrest and crucifixion.
There is a turning point in all of the Gospels at which Jesus sets his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem. Jesus began to recognize it was part of God’s will that he go to Jerusalem where he would be arrested and executed. From that point on, everything he did pointed in the direction of Jerusalem.
Jesus’ resolve to go to Jerusalem, despite what laid in front of him, gives us the structure for Ash Wednesday and Lent. The primary themes for the season are mortality and obedience. When Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, he is doing so in the full knowledge that it will lead to his death. But, at the same time, he is being perfectly obedient to the will of God.
The purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us of our mortality and our need and desire to get back into a right relationship with God. On Ash Wednesday we also set our faces towards Jerusalem as we prepare ourselves for the coming events of Holy Week and the joy of Easter morning.
One of the first things that come to mind when we think of Ash Wednesday is the use of ashes to mark people’s foreheads. Ashes are used because they are a symbol of our mortality. In Genesis, when Adam and Eve are forced out of the Garden of Eden, God says to them,
“In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” For obvious reasons, when people come to terms with their own mortality, they also recognize the need to repent, to get right with God before they die. Therefore, beginning with Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season of repentance and returning to God.
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are solemn events, but obedience to the will of a loving and merciful God can only bring joy. These are the words from the closing order of worship for Ash Wednesday in the UCC Book of Worship:
Almighty God does not desire the death of sinners,
but rather that they may turn
from their wickedness and live.
Therefore we implore God to grant us true repentance
and the Holy Spirit,
that those things which we do this day
may be pleasing to God,
that the rest of our lives may be lived faithfully,
and that at the last we may come to God’s eternal joy; through Jesus the Christ.
Thanks be to God.
As we begin the Lenten season this week, let us all spend some time thinking about how we can better serve our God. Let us turn once again toward Jerusalem, letting go of our sins and our pride, and be filled with the joy that can only come from true obedience to God.